The History of the Sewing Machine

The history of the sewing machine is full of accusations, unsuccessful attempts and major scandal. It is an interesting story from death to patent law, which shows the seamless, humble sewing machine that has jolted more than a few feathers in its infancy.

A 20,000 year old

Without the art of hand sewing, the history of the sewing machine would not exist. Some 20,000 years ago people started hand sewing, with the first needles made of bones or animal horns and the animal sinew thread. Our inventive instinct explains how natural sewing techniques are developed to make it less tedious.

The History of the Sewing Machine

1755:  The First Patent

A “needle design for a machine,” Charles Weisenthal, a German, has received a British patent. There is no description of the mechanical machine in Weisenthal’s patent, but it demonstrates that such an invention was required.

1790: The First Detailed Design

The first sewing machine of the type was designed by Englishman Thomas Saint. A machine with a hand cabinet for use with leather and canvas was described as the patent. No one knows if Saint had built a prototype, but the patent drawings were found by William Newton Wilson in 1874. They were so detailed, he made a replica and proved it was working.

Early 18th Century:

All the attempts to design a sewing machine before the first successful machine was moved side by side and driven with a winding handle.

  • 1810: The Automatic sewing cap machine was invented by Balthasar Krems. His design was not patented but it still did not work.
  • 1814: The patent was granted in 1814 to an Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger. He persisted and tried various designs, but they were all unsuccessful.
  • 1818: the first sewing machine of the Americas is by John Adams Doge and John Knowles, who were only able to sew a few pieces of fabric before they break.

1830: First Successful Sewing Machine

We finally have a functioning sewing machine 40 years after Thomas Saint first drew and described a machine for sewing. The French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier has invented a chain the stitching machine using a hooked needle, with a thread.

1830: Near Death Experience

Thimonnier is the world’s first machine-based clothing company after the successful patent. It was his job to make French Army uniforms. But other French tailors were not too pleased with his invention. They feared that his machine would lead to unemployment so that while he was in his factory, they burnt it down.

1834: Morals Over Money

This is an example of adhering to your convictions. Walter Hunt created the first American sewing machine that worked, but he had serious reservations. He did not bother to patent the design, Hunt thought that such an engine would lead to unemployment for so many.

1844: A Lost Patent

The sewing machines we have seen so far all comprise disjointed elements, with nothing actually working in conjunction. John Fisher designed in 1844 a sewing machine to remove this discrepancy between the moving components. However, a botched job in the Patent Office caused his patent to be lost and was never accepted.

1845: Elias Howe & the Lockstitch

The sewing machine similar to Fisher is invented by Elias Howe from America, with tweaks and adjustments. His patent was designed “a process that uses thread from 2 different sources.” His machine has an eye-catching needle which passes through the fabric, which creates a reverse loop and a shuttle to a path that passes through the loop the second thread, creating a so-called lockstitch.

He was battling to market his design, so he stepped into England and sailed. After a long stay, only to find others that had copied his stitching mechanism he went home to his motherland. An Isaac Merritt Singer was one of those.

1851: Introducing Isaac Singer

Isaac Merritt Singer is one of the most famous manufacturers of sewing machines to build an Empire which still continues to exist today. His iconic sewing machines from Singer are beautifully adorned and legendary. With a foot pedal and the up and down needle, he developed the first version of our modern sewing machine. He also took inspiration from the inventions of the Howe, Hunt and Thimonnier, which led Howe to sue.

1854: A Real Stitch Up

For Patent Violation, Elias Howe took Singer to court, continued to defend his case and won. Isaac Singer attempted to refer back to the design of Walter Hunt, saying that Howe violated his idea. This had no impact at all, unfortunately for Singer. The absence of patent on the design of Hunt meant that anybody could use it as intellectual property.

Interestingly, had John Fisher not patented in the Patent Office incorrectly, he too would have participated in lawsuits, as both the designs of Howe and Singer were near as similar to the design of the patent invented by Fisher.

As a result, Singer had to pay Howe and give him a share in the I.M. a lump sum of patents fees.

Howe and Singer have both been dead, and each one of these pioneered inventors has given the world the sewing machine despite every allegation, drama and legal dispute. Without early attempts and persistence, the women and factory workers who now know how our clothes industry looks like would be relieved of long dangerous hours.

The first single-thread sewing machine was patented by James Gibbs, on 2 June 1857.

The first zigzag stitch machine in 1873 was patented by Helen Blanchard of Portland, Maine (1840-1922). The zig-zag point screws the edges of a seam more effectively and makes a garment stronger. He also patented 28 other inventions, including the hat sewing machine, operating needles, and other sewing machine improvements.

Elias Howe’s patent was upheld by the court in 1854, as Walter Hunt had forsaken his sewing machine and had never filed for a patent. The machine of Isaac Singer was a bit different from the one of Howe. Its needle moved up and down instead of sideways, and instead of a hand crank it was fitted with a treadle. The lockstitch process was however the same and a similar needle was used.

In production lines of clothing factories the first mechanical sewing machines were used. Only in 1889 a sewing machine was developed and marketed for use in the house.

The electric sewing machine had been used extensively before 1905.

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